The Gift of Welcome
Last Sunday Joe and I had a drink on a patio on Church Street. The street had been closed and people were wandering around stopping at various booths, or running into people they hadn’t seen in a while, or wearing ‘low fabric’ costumes. In front of where we sat was a booth where people spun a wheel and then won a prize based on where the arrow pointed. The prizes were simple, a bandana, a beachball, some buttons with logos on them, a tape measure.
The guy running the booth was amazing to watch, he just seemed to enjoy people, and he engaged with them all with a sense of fun and his warmth and good humour seemed to be endless. At one point, when there was a line up of people waiting to spin the wheel, a man with an intellectual disability joined the line up. He was a big man, he wore slightly more clothing than would be typical on a hot day, and he had a slight shuffle when he walked. He made people nervous. Some left the line up, others stayed but increased their distance from him. All he did, because it’s what we do not what we look like right, was wait quietly and patiently in the line up.
When he got to the front of the line, Joe and I both were tense. The situation was ripe for something nasty to happen, an act of unwelcome, a comment meant for others to hear but for him to not understand. We’ve seen it before. The guy asked him, like he did all the others, what he’d like to win. He pointed at the bandana. Then he looked up at the guy running the booth and smiled, it lit up his face, “May I spin now please?”
“Honey, you go right ahead,” was the answer. He reached up and spun the wheel, he watched it with great intensity. While the wheel spun, just like with everyone else, the guy at the both joked with him about the day and about the heat and about the fact that others at the booth were wearing only jockstraps. There was a wariness in the face of the fellow with a disability, he, like us, was waiting for the jab, the teasing that wasn’t teasing. But it never came, and again, that smile.
The wheel stopped spinning. He’d won the bandana. He was given his prize, and he went happily on his way. The next customer was up. The guy at the booth then did the same, welcomed, joked, laughed along with that customer too. There wasn’t even a hitch, a pause, or a moment taken to adjust to difference. Not one.
When we left, I got in the lineup with Joe to spin the wheel. But what I really wanted to do was speak to the guy at the table. We got to the front and I said to him, “We’ve been sitting having a drink on the patio just behind you, I want to say that you have a wonderful way with people, you have an manner which is just naturally inclusive.” Now of course, for those of us in the disability community the word ‘inclusive’ is a code word, but it isn’t so much outside our community. He looked at me and laughed, “What the hell are you talking about,” he asked. “Nothing, you just have a really good way with people,” I said. He brushed off the compliment. I wasn’t going to let it go. I mean, he was treating and talking to me just like anyone else, it wasn’t just the other guy, this man has the gift of welcome, I wanted him to get that. “I’m serious I said, you are a kind man who welcomes everyone, I appreciate that so much,” I said. This time he took me more seriously, “I don’t know what you are refering to, what I’m supposed to have done, but, honey, after all these years, I’ve learned that people are just people.”
I won the tape measure.